Walking into the L-shaped produce arcade outside of the West Side Market is a little disorienting. At 9:30 a.m. on the first Saturday in March, one wing sits almost entirely vacant, save for two stands near the entrance. More than a third of the vendors have permanently left, perhaps due to a harsh winter season and reduced bounty. But one step into the second wing reveals the vacancy isn’t as simple as chalking it up to the weather.
Here, the vendors are vibrant, and the stands are teeming with life. Visitors pull wheeled coolers behind them as they peruse through mountains of colorful fruit and vegetables piled high on white tables. Children zigzag through the crowd, their laughter as loud and constant as the shouts from vendors outbidding each other. Everywhere you look, there’s someone calling out to you, asking you to buy something, begging you to eat.
At one stand, a vendor displays a ripe grapefruit sliced in half to showcase the freshness of his fruit. At another, an elderly, gray-haired woman wearing a purple jacket plucks a grape from a bunch and pops it into her mouth. Above her, behind the counter, a man stands by his son holding a wad of cash.
“Four berries. 5 bucks,” he shouts over the crowd. “Let’s go!”
Inside the main building, it’s much more quiet and less crowded. Here, the hall is vast, the arched ceiling’s Guastavino tile bronzed and knotted together like tiny loaves of bread. Many of the vendors have already been here for a few hours, prepping their stock, filling their cases with cuts of meat, cheeses and baked goods. Some are just beginning, flickering on the lights over their stands as customers linger in the aisles, patiently waiting for the day to begin. Still, others, such as Narrin Asian Spice & Sauce, remain dark.
When I find Don Whitaker, owner of D.W. Whitaker Meats and president of the West Side Market Tenants Association, he’s standing behind his counter at the center of the great hall wearing an apron. As we walk through the market, passing vendor after vendor and the occasional customer, Whitaker says this is slow for a Saturday.
“Normally you’d see twice as much,” he says. “People are coming here later.”
It’s a trend Whitaker has seen evolve ever since he began working at the West Side Market for another butcher as a 13-year-old. Now, as the owner of his own butchering business that expands across three stands with 19 employees, Whitaker says he could be open any day of the week. He’s got a wide assortment of deli meats. He’s got pork chops, pork roast and fresh roasting pigs. He specializes in small chickens that come out of Kidron, Ohio, and the Virginias and occasionally carries whole frozen ducks when they’re in season. The idea: sell the freshest cuts of meat to beat out the competition 10 feet away.
“It gets in your blood,” he says. “It’s a good living, but you have to work at it just like anything else.”
Working here isn’t easy. For years, antiquated market hours have been a point of contention for tenants who either cannot afford the staff or simply wish to be open at different times. As longtime vendors retire, new vendors have come in, but have struggled to keep shop due to an increase in rent and a steady decline in traffic.
The list of vendors on the market’s website is outdated, and it takes just one quick jaunt through the landmark to realize there’s quite a few vacancies that need filling. According to the city, 26 of the 81 stands in the produce arcade are unoccupied. The city is currently processing six applications to fill in some of those vacancies. Inside, only five of the 100 stands are empty, but some, such as the former Apple Cured Meats stand, have been empty and unused for more than a year.
“Why is that taking so long?” asks Whitaker. “These are the small problems I’m trying to fix.”
Tensions have also come to a head between existing vendors and the city of Cleveland, which owns and manages the property within the city’s public works department.
Although the city has spent $5.3 million on capital improvements since 2012, such as a new public parking lot, garage doors on the arcade, new boilers, lighting and exhaust repairs, many of the vendors complain about the absence of preventative maintenance and consistent improvement, citing lack of communication and failure to address repairs in a timely manner.
Coupled with competing local markets following the hottest trends such as food delivery service and more prepared hot foods, the West Side Market appears to be frozen in time, lagging behind the competition.
“The market is always slow to change and I think that’s what’s kept it [going] for 107 years,” says Whitaker. “But if you go through the trends, almost all public markets are run by cities and then they went to nonprofits.”
Since August, city councilman Kerry McCormack and Ohio City Inc., the neighborhood’s community development corporation, have been working on a proposal to move the management of the market out of the city’s hands and into that of a nonprofit that can raise funds and address repairs and capital improvements as needed. As part of this proposal, they want to take a deep dive into how the market is run and intentionally seek out trends competing local markets have found successful.
Although this isn’t the first time these conversations have occurred, many are convinced that there’s never been a more ripe moment than now to ensure the market’s future by revisiting the way it is operating.
“Change is coming,” says Whitaker. “We just have to accept it.”